Territorial steps moved Alaska forward

Steve Haycox

When Congress authorized creation of the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1912, it brought to Alaska the final phase of the territorial system that had been implemented in all the other territorial acquisitions of the United States since the beginning of the nation, with just a few exceptions. That process began with the presidential appointment of a governor, judge and minor civil officials, as authorized by Congress, whenever the solons determined the time was right.

In a number of territories, including Alaska, these appointments were preceded by a period of military jurisdiction. In Alaska, that period lasted 17 years while Congress waited for economic investment that would create jobs that would draw settlers. This began with the development of the Treadwell Mines on Douglas Island in 1880. After several thousand non-Natives migrated to the area, Congress in 1884 authorized the appointments.

The decade of the 1880s generated considerable interest in Alaska's potential and in 1886 gold was found on the Forty-Mile River, a tributary of the upper Yukon. The subsequent rush brought additional non-Natives, which were counted at 5,000 in the 1890 census, a ten-fold increase over the 435 official count in 1880, before the Treadwell development. Congress responded in 1891 with two measures designed to nurture settlement and economic development in the territory. One authorized the platting and sale of town lots by the U.S. General Land Office. With this measure, for the first time, settlers, almost all of whom lived in small towns, could obtain clear title to their land and improvements, their houses.

The 1891 act also provided 80-acre homesteads for businesses wanting to develop resources. This was intended for salmon canneries, the first cannery in Alaska having been established at Klawock in 1878. Again, the objective was to facilitate these operations obtaining clear title to their land and improvements, which in the case of salmon canneries was both considerable and costly.

But implementation of the final features of the territorial system was occasioned by the aftermath of the great Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon in Canada. An estimated 40,000 trekkers braved the Chilkoot and White Pass trails in the winter and spring of 1897-98, most of whom were disappointed in their quest for Klondike gold. A good many moved on into Alaska, both before, and in greater numbers after, the Nome Gold Rush of 1899. Virtually every region of Alaska was prospected and new towns sprang up wherever anyone found more than just a promising show. The 1900 census found 30,000 non-Natives, the same as the number of Natives, a six-fold increase over the 1890 figure.

As it did whenever the census showed a significant pioneer population, Congress responded with a host of measures designed to facilitate economic development and nurture settlement, including the dispatching of military units, survey and construction of a telegraph line to the continental states, a homestead act and the establishment of a collection of agricultural experiment stations, a railroad leasing act, and perhaps most significantly, authorization for the incorporation of towns, the drafting of civil and criminal legal codes, and the appointment of two additional federal judges.

Then, in 1906, Congress put in place the second major element of the traditional territorial system, the biennial election of a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Now Alaskans would have an elected representative in Washington, D.C., conveying accurate information about the territory, and arguing the case for Alaska needs and interests. In 1908 Judge James Wickersham resigned from the bench to seek election as delegate. He was successful and served six successive terms as delegate, becoming the patriarch of Alaska politics.

When the 1910 census found again about 30,000 non-Natives, showing that the pioneer population was apparently a permanent fixture of Alaska, Wickersham went to work to persuade Congress to implement the third and last territorial system element, the elected Legislature. This Congress authorized in the summer of 1912. President Taft signed the bill on Wickersham's 55th birthday, Aug. 24.

There were serious limitations in the act, demonstrating that Congress still didn't quite trust in the civil maturity of Alaskans. Nonetheless, the creation of the Alaska Legislature was a momentous and necessary step in the long journey toward statehood and the self-government we have now.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.